Sunday, November 30, 2014


Arctic explorer and anthropologist,
Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879-1962)

Washington Island, Wisconsin -

My final entry in this series of three people who knew or corresponded with C. H. Thordarson - the Icelandic immigrant, inventor and title holder to many U. S. patents, manufacturer of electrical transmission and lab equipment, and a leading bibliographer of his day - is about Vilhjalmur Stefansson.

Having included the several letters I found between Stefansson and Thordarson in my chapter from Thordarson and Rock Island titled, "A Magnificent Library, a Lifetime of Books," ( beginning on page 265) I at first had no idea who Stefansson was, his background or what his accomplishments were.  The more I read about Stefansson, the more intrigued I became, because his life connected with other notable figures of Arctic exploration, a subject I've always found fascinating.  If Thordarson seemed a fantastic personality and individual of his day, Stefansson was his equal.

Map showing approximate routes of Stefansson over several
Arctic expeditions - nearly all on foot, towing a sledge.

My initial reasons as author/editor for including the letters between Stefansson and Thordarson was simply to demonstrate the range of Thordarson's correspondence regarding personal library acquisitions, and to illustrate the thorough knowledge he had for certain books, titles, editions and quality of copies.  Thordarson could be very discerning in his book selection, and this showed in his exchange with Stefansson.  But, by digging further I learned more about Thordarson and about Arctic exploration efforts that were either just completed or were being planned for the Arctic region.

Stefansson dragging a seal across the ice.

Thordarson's most frequent correspondent, Eugene McDonald of Zenith Corporation, you may recall, was a co-leader of an expedition to northern Greenland and the Arctic with Capt. Donald McMillan and LT Richard Byrd.  Their expedition in 1925 pioneered the use of aircraft for Arctic reconnaissance, and the use of short-wave radio for long distance communications.  Thordarson, an Icelander by birth, and one who seemed interested in all such ventures, must have found his friend McDonald's Arctic reports fascinating, and the use of Zenith Company products aboard his ship, for which Thordarson Electric Manufacturing supplied coils, meant that Thordarson had a personal stake in the success of that mission as well.

Book collecting helps display Thordarson's range of knowledge

Let's review Thordarson's ambitions in collecting rare books by reprinting several of his letters of correspondence with Stefansson, who at first I believed to be simply another ambitious, well-intentioned middleman of used and rare books.  How uninformed I was, and what a pleasant surprise to be introduced in this way to one of the most notable Arctic explorers of the 20th century.

Stefansson, born in Gimli, Manitoba in 1879 to Icelandic immigrant parents, was given an American name, William Stephenson.  He later changed it back to the Icelandic Vilhjalmur Stefansson,  which is probably a clue to his great amount of self esteem and self confidence, characterized throughout his life.  His family moved to North Dakota, to an area where many Icelandic immigrants had settled, and he received higher education in North Dakota and in Iowa.  Later, he was a graduate student at Harvard, first in the School of Divinity, then specializing in anthropology, which became his chosen and lifelong work.

He participated in his first Arctic expedition as a field researcher, but he was dissatisfied and quit and went on his own, later forming several of his own expeditions.  He approached his research and work during these several long expeditions by first learning the Inuit dialect, and he became fluent enough to understand most conversations, enabling him to live with and among the native people and be accepted by them.  His field notes and journals included observations on every phase of their lives from survival techniques to religious beliefs.  Stefansson was quite critical of the way in which Christian missionaries had influenced the Inuit, replacing their native beliefs, sometimes without clear guidance as to how interpretations ought to be made of scripture, and by the encouragement of the use of wood-framed structures instead of traditional skin tents or igloos, which Stefansson believed promoted disease.  He observed how they made their clothing and existed exclusively from fish and game (no fruits or vegetables) and he chose to do the same through hunting, fishing or trading with those he encountered for his survival.

Fannie Pannigabluk and son
Alex Stefansson.

One of his expeditions lasted four years, from 1908-1911, during which time he trekked hundreds of miles on land and over ice, lived 'off the land' (a remarkable feat compared with the many European explorers, some of whom met their demise, who packed in sacks of rice, flour, sugar and other western food items).  As a result of Stefansson's conscious choice to live as the natives did, he was rewarded with a less costly mission, less reliance on being resupplied, being more mobile - all of which made his research efforts highly successful.  (Stefansson later wrote a book extolling the benefits of living very well from a meat-only diet, and he carried out experiments to prove this could be done.  Stefansson himself was never choosy as to his source of food.  He ate whatever was available, including parts from a whale beached several years earlier, wolf (which he rated as tasting excellent), polar bear, seal - and when nothing else was available and starvation was a threat, he boiled the skins of animals that had been saved to be shipped to the Natural History Museum of New York.

From his journal book, My Life With The Eskimo (from his 1908-1911 years), he opens with this entry:

"I lived with the Eskimo at all, to live exactly as one of them, in their houses, dressing like them, and eating only such foods as they did.  I now found myself, in accord with my own plan, set down two hundred miles north of the polar circle, with a summer suit of clothing, a camera, some notebooks, a rifle, and about two hundred rounds of ammunition, facing an Arctic winter, where my only shelter would have to be the roof of some hospitable Eskimo house.  These were ideal conditions for me…This gave me a rare opportunity to know them as they are."

Stefansson is an objective observer who matter-of-factly retells in his journal one tale after another of survival, any one of which could have gone wrong had he not had his wits about him and a bit of fortune on his side.

Stefansson in the Arctic (possibly aboard ship?)

One of his intended goals was to find the "Copper Inuit," natives with blond hair and blue eyes who used copper tools, and who lived in the area of Banks Island, far to the north in the Canadian Arctic.  They were claimed to have been visited by one whaling ship captain a few years before.  Stefansson was successful, trekking every mile on foot, in finding the people who had never before seen a white man, and who exhibited characteristics of (Stefansson surmised) the Greenland Viking settlers who disappeared centuries earlier.  He makes his case that these native people assimilated the roving, or lost, Greenland settlers.  (A theory challenged since his time.)

In a letter to the American Museum, he announced his discovery:

   West of Coppermine we found over 200 people who had never seen a white man, whose ancestors had never seen one, who knew of no past relations with people to the west, and whose territory was supposed by geographers to be definitely known to be uninhabited (so labelled on official charts of the Canadian Government)…
   The general appearance was non-Eskimo - a sort of "portly appearance.
   It is hard to be specific in this matter, but the general impression is definite. My Eskimo companion was impressed no less than I.  He said, "These are not Eskimos, they are just like fo'cas'le men"  -  he has worked many years "before the mast" as a whaler. 

Stefansson returned from his four year excursion - during which time he also fathered a son, named Alex, born to his Inuit friend and one of several journey companions, Fannie Pannigabluk - and immediately mounts another expedition, one even more complicated in scope with a large crew, employing the former whaling ship Karluk.

On this expedition, 1913-1918, one member was photographer George H. Wilkins, a New Zealander with roots back to Britain.  Wilkins' photos, which he managed to salvage during an extended time on the ice, over the ice, and on Wrangel Island, after the Karluk was crushed by ice, help to illustrate the hardships of that journey, along with the excellent book written by Captain Bob Bartlet, "The Last Voyage of the Karluk, Flagship of Vilhjalmar Stefansson's Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-1916."  This book is tale of survival that easily rivals that of the more famous Sir Ernst Shackelton with the crew of the Endurance in the Antarctic, which occurred about the same time (1914-15).

Ill-fated KARLUK eventually was crushed in ice north of the Siberian Peninsula.  Stefansson had
left the ship to find provisions ashore, and the ship began drifting in the ice pack, separating him from
the ship and its crew.  Captain Bob Bartlett successfully, epically, made it to shore, and
secured help to rescue the remaining survivors from Wrangel Island.

George Wilkins, he learned, had a relative, Bishop Wilkins, who was prominent in English government in the 1600s, and who wrote about his idea for the submarine in his book, Mathematical Magick, quite possibly the first written account for underwater transport.  George Wilkins then, with his accumulated experience as a participant on several Arctic expeditions, and from his successful, first-ever flight across the Arctic by airplane (April 1928), plans to sail under the Polar ice cap by submarine.  That venture was brought with mechanical problems and went wrong, in part due to his lease of a poor, used U. S. Navy submarine.  But, his exchanges with Stefansson, and with Thordarson through Stefansson, apparently aided Wilkins in forming his plan.

With that background, then, here are several letters or their excerpts.  What had initially caught my attention was that Thordarson expressed no problem in outlining his ideas on how such a submarine expedition of the Arctic should be executed, having little basis other than his well-read opinion.  He also, characteristically, brings up short the well known Arctic explorer, writer, lecturer and academic, Stefansson, on the merits of a particular available copy of Marco Polo.

Stefansson, dressed in Arctic clothing.

In this first letter, Stefansson writes to Wilkins (who was knighted for his efforts in successfully crossing the Arctic ice cap by air):

Dear Wilkins:                                   February 8, 1931

When I came to prepare for the writing of the history of the submarine-polar idea, I could not find my copy of Mathematical Magick nor could I borrow one in New York city except for use in libraries.  My copy had been given me by C. H. Thordarson of Chicago, who has the finest private English language scientific library in America, and I wired him to lend me another.  He replied he would bring it when he came to New York and I received it from him today.

Mr. Thordarson not only has a complete collection of the Bishop's published writings (I believe something like seventeen titles) but also a book that was written at the time attacking him of this advanced heretical views.  This is a polemic against Wilkins' on "THAT 'TIS PROBABLE OUR EARTH IS ONE OF THE PLANETS" and is entitled "THE NEW PLANET NO PLANET, or, The Earth no Wandering Star Except in the Heads of Fallileans, etc." by Alexander Rosse, London 1646.

Here is an obligation on you.  It was Thordarson who first told me about the submarine idea in "MATHEMATICAL MAGICK" and then he gave me the book.   Since you say that you first heard of the Bishop's submarine ideas from me, it is really from Thordarson you got them. He has for years been a great admirer and protagonist of the Bishop and is much annoyed now because Jules Verne is getting the credit for originating an idea which he only copied from the Bishop.  [Presumably for his book, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.]

The way you can discharge the obligation in a manner to please Mr. Thordrson very much is to inscribe to him a copy of your "FLYING THE ARCTIC,"  and say in the inscription something that will tie up him and the Bishop generally with your present submarine plans.  The address is C. H. Thordarson, 500 West Huron Street, Chicago.

A copy of his letter to Wilkins Stefansson then sent to Thordarson, who responded on March 2, 1931:

My dear Mr. Stefanson,

Yesterday, in looking thru the Sunday papers, I found an article on Sir Herbert Wilkins' submarine boat.

It appears to me that it is a very dangerous undertaking and I venture to make one suggestion.  Mainly, I think it would be wiser to plan that trip as a double caravan, one in the submarine under the ice, and the other apart traveling on top of the ice and both moving together as near as possible to that they can be in wirelesss communication every minute of each twenty-four hours.   (Thordarson then continues at some length through several paragraphs to bolster his argument that use of both under and on the ice conveyance would be best and safest.)

Stefansson, who resided in New York at the time, then wrote Thordarson about a book copy he had access to, which might earn him a commission.   I believe Stefansson meant it also as a gesture of friendship to one who might appreciate his tip.  Stefansson alerted Thordarson to an available copy of Marco Polo.

Dear Mr. Thordarson,                           November 28, 1931

I have just received the following letter [from a contact] with regard to the Marco Polo:

    "You very kindly tried to sell my Marco Polo for me, but unfortunately we did not have any luck.  I am just wondering whether amongst your many wealthy friends interested in travel you could find a buyer.   As business is very slow just now I would be willing to take one thousand pounds for it.  It should be worth quite twice this amount in good times.  There are only two other copies recorded, both in London Museums."

You have seen the book.  If this hard times offer interests you, please let me handle it rather than your broker.  In any case, let me know prompt for I have two other collectors in mind.     S.  [Stefansson]

Thordarson responded and didn't hold back on his assessment of the book's condition or price:

My Dear Mr. Stefansson,                                      December 4, 1931

On my return to my office  yesterday from Rock Island, I found a letter from you dated November 28 regarding Marco Polo's book.

Does it not seem strange to you that this book has been going begging now for over two years, in which time, it has been sent two or three times to America?  The reason is obvious.  It was not worth the price the owner asked for it.  [About $3500 was asked.]

In about two months from now there will be a sale of very rare books, one of them is the first edition of Marco Polo.  This book has been described to me as a very splendid tall copy.  There is no question that your book seller is very well familiar with this fact and, naturally, most anxious  to get rid of his copy before the sale.

In view of the present poor business outlook, I would not be justified in bidding at any price at that sale.  It will, undoubtedly, be sold very cheap, probably very much below $3500.

I expect to be in New York City in about ten days and then I would like very much to have the pleasure of meeting you.

We can assume (but don't know) if the two men got together in New York.  There is no evidence that Stefansson ever visited Rock Island, or if he visited Thordarson in Chicago, for that matter.

After receiving a similar, direct reply from Thordarson in 1933 without a hint of 'thanks', Stefansson sent this note to Thordarson:  "I know there must be some misunderstanding and on account of my intermediary relation I hope you will tell me what it is."

Sir George Hubert Wilkins, Arctic explorer,
photographer, first to fly over the Polar ice cap,
leader of first submarine polar expedition.

There are a number of photos, from internet sources, that I've reprinted here, both of Stefansson and of George Wilkins.  (Sorry, but I do not have the photo credits.)  These photos depict a very hardy explorer in Stefansson, and of two men who left a major mark in Arctic exploration.  Both were widely recognized in their day for their achievements.

Stefansson, in excellent company:  Orville Wright, Amelia Earhart
and Henry Sperry, inventor of the gyro compass.
Wilkins renamed his submarine "Nautilus" despite the
controversy over whether his distant forbear Bishop Wilkins
had been the originator of the concept, and not
Jules Verne.

One last item that is related by general topic "Arctic" to Stefansson and to Wilkins:  The Washington Island Literary Festival 2015 will have as its featured guest the author Hampton Sides whose best selling non-fiction history is titled, "A Kingdom of Ice."

This book is about an earlier Arctic expedition, and the struggles of its members to survive.  Sides provides great historical background on why men undertook such risky ventures (we might even say "hair-brained" risks, given the misunderstandings of the times about the Arctic region).   Anyone interested in action, adventure, expeditionary history and tales of polar discovery will enjoy reading Hampton Sides' best seller in preparation for the 2015 Island Lit Fest.

The dates for this year's Island Literary Festival have been moved to:   September 18-19-20.

-  Dick Purinton

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